On the day that his life would change, six-year-old Sunny Pawar went to Air India Modern School, Kalina, Mumbai, and was quite happy when he was asked to join a bunch of children to run around and play instead of sitting in the classroom. “I didn’t know what it was for, but it was a lot of fun. We played for a long time, and then I was told that it was for a film,” says Pawar. That was two years ago, and the film was Lion. Directed by Garth Davis, it has moved audiences and critics around the world, and garnered six nominations at the upcoming Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Dev Patel), Best Supporting Actress (Nicole Kidman) and Best Adapted Screenplay (from Saroo Brierley’s memoir, A Long Way Home). And in spite of its powerhouse cast, there is no doubt — Pawar is the star of Lion.
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He looks like any other eight-year-old as he bounds into our interview, grinning widely; his father Dilip is right behind him, looking less enthusiastic. They have a long day ahead of them and Pawar senior is worried that the scores of back-to-back interviews will exhaust his son. “I never imagined that such a thing would happen to my family but here we are,” he says. Indeed, the film’s success has catapulted Pawar and his family into the global spotlight, and father and son have travelled across continents to promote the film.
In Lion, Pawar plays the young Saroo who grew up in Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh, with his mother and two siblings, living hand to mouth until one day, the little boy mistakenly gets on a train that takes him nearly 1,600 km away, to Kolkata. The first half of the film is largely devoted to Pawar, and his soulful performance as a lost child in search for a way back home is nothing short of remarkable. “We had screened about 2,000 children from across three cities. We had shortlists and hopefuls, and Sunny was one among them. Kirsty McGregor, the Hollywood casting director and I loved his face. He had soulful eyes, a certain stillness and husky voice,” says Tess Joseph, the Indian casting director whose team found Pawar at his school.
After getting the part, the schoolboy went home and told his father, who had returned after a long day searching for a job. “I did a number of odd jobs and was hunting for another, when Sunny told me that he had been chosen for this film. I didn’t think much of it till the crew contacted me. I was quite hesitant at first, but my son really wanted to act, so we agreed,” says Dilip, who then applied for their passports so that they could travel to Australia for the shoot.
Pawar attended workshops with acting coach Miranda Harcourt and Joseph’s team till he was ready. But with the help of a scrapbook that told Pawar the story of his character, and a little chocolate every now and then, the young actor slowly but surely embodied the role. “I understood what Saroo was going through, but at the end of the day, I know I’m Sunny,” he says.
After appearances at the Golden Globe Awards and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Pawar will don a tuxedo again for the Academy Awards on Sunday. “I want to be an actor. My favourite movie is Ajay Devgn’s Singham. I’ve done another role, of a fruit-seller in Love Sonia; which was only five minutes, but I’d like to act all my life,” says Pawar.